04 September 2011

Incident in a Tavern at Bristol

Joachim Gans was a Jewish copper smelter headhunted by Elizabeth I and brought from Western Bohemia to the English Lake District to supervise mining works in the 1580s. Five years later he was one of the first settlers in Virginia. When the colony failed he returned to England, where, in 1589, following a chance remark by someone who had heard him speaking Hebrew, he found himself the subject of an inquisition by Richard Curteys, bishop of Chichester.

And do you believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God?

A flash on the oak (Curteys has no knife,
but his eyes are keen as an Erzgebirge owl’s,
and his sharp, questioning, tongue so keen to stab

Then do you deny Jesus Christ is the son of God?

Having concealed so much so far,
in that one second, Gans recoils ten years:

   his time in Krušné Hory, the wild west as he knew it,
   the furnace-lit streets lined with childish wooden cribs;

   then five years ago, among the English fells,
   the gentle herders moving on sunlit Sundays
   up Kirkstone pass to the church,
   somehow content.

   and then the shipwreck on the fatal shore:
   Ralegh’s crew cursing in his name: the Lord's
   Prayer offered up, on board the Tiger.
   And he, silent. The first Jew in America.

    And the ghost of Roanoke, following him
    like the Erl King’s shade

back here to Bristol.
And all that time, silently denying.

Someone kicks the doorplate; Gans
sees Curteys touch the pewter cup as if to bless the wine -
and at that moment knows
that transubstantiation is a lie.

Curteys’s owl-head cocks to one side.
Gans fingers in his pocket:
a Virginian coin his first, his last, and only dollar.
It is pure gold. There is no alloy here.

He looks the bishop in the eye
and draws

a Deptford stab

and clearly answers:
'What need Almighty God a son? Is He not himself almighty?'